The knock at the door could mean only one thing. Without a word between us, we both knew it was anything but good. Malone’s goons had finally caught up with Dad.
Up against the wall and tired of running from his gambling debts—not that he could’ve run after Malone had given him that lead pipe kneecapping just over six months ago—Dad’s number was up. And he wouldn’t be able to bluff himself out of this one.
“C’mon, Forester. Let’s not drag dis out any longer dan we’s gots to.” Christ on a cracker. Malone’s muscle guys were right out of central casting for douchebag mobster dirtballs. And judging by the way they were laying on the faux Jersey accents, I was willing to go double or nothing that these clowns were from Wichita or Omaha or some other flyover burg.
Dad’s voice stirred me from my angry inner monologue. “Emy, baby. Get your ass in the closet and stay quiet. Don’t move a muscle until they’re gone. I’m gonna throw ‘em off your trail, but you gotta hide and then lay low for a while.”
Over the years, we’d had more than our fair share of conversations just like this, so I knew the drill. But the tense edge in his voice communicated everything I needed to know. This would be the last of these conversations we’d ever have.
“Dad, please,” I begged, my voice sharpening as tears pooled in my eyes. “Just tell me how much you owe and maybe we can find a way to make this right.”
Pursing his lips and dropping his chin to his chest, he just shook his head, resigned to his fate. “It’s way more than you and I got, Emy, and that’s all you need to know.” A long sigh escaped his lips as the pounding against the front door intensified.
“I went all in and lost, kitten. But after I’m gone, I’ll be square with Malone and you can go live out the rest of your life without your old dad around, ruining things for you at every turn, hm?”
“Stop it, Dad, just stop it.” My tears spilled over and ran down my cheeks as I pulled my body tight against his. “I love you and you haven’t ruined a damn thing.” It was a lie—a white one—but a lie nonetheless. He’d ruined plenty.
Ever since Mom died and left Dad and me to fend for ourselves in Wisconsin, it was like a flip had switched inside him. Logic disappeared and emotion prevailed. He’d reasoned that if rotten luck—and a drunk driver—could take away the only woman he’d ever loved, then life itself was all based on a cosmic roll of the dice. In less than a year, we left Wisconsin—never to return—and he went from being a hard-working regional sales rep for a farm supply outfit to a professional gambler. And a shitty one at that.
Everything in his life had turned into a game of chance and Las Vegas became our new home. His chronic gambling had been a problem since day one. And yes, he’d definitely done his fair share of ‘ruining’ during our tenure in Sin City. Birthday parties, my high school graduation, various college honors dinners. He’d either show up, give me a quick hug, and skip out before any of the loan sharks could find him, or he’d grab as many cash-filled envelopes with ‘Emy’ scrolled across them as he could, hoping to buy his way out of his problems with a hand or two of blackjack. Or both. The man was a proverbial clusterfuck, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to save him.
His luck had finally run out.
“I love you, Emy honey. You be good now. It’s time for me to go see Momma again.” With a final sob, he clutched me to his chest then shoved me to the back of the closet in my childhood bedroom. “And remember what I said. Not a sound, no matter what you hear out there.”
“I love you too, Daddy!” I cried out for the last time, biting down on the sleeve of my sweater to muffle my sorrow.
With a deafening crack and the subsequent tinkling rattle of metal screws bouncing along the tile floor in the foyer, Victor Malone’s hoods announced their entry into the house. And they weren’t fucking around.
Dad shuffled out to meet them, and through the slats in the closet door, I just barely made out their conversation.
“Jesus Christ, guys. Can’t a guy take a nap in this town without having his door busted down by a couple of mobster flunkies?” His voice was level. His bravado unmatched. But there was a hitch in his delivery—his tell—and I knew he was as scared as he’d ever been in his life.
“Enough screwin’ around, Forester. Get your ass down here. This ain’t a social call, and we knows you don’t gots the money you owe to Mr. Malone.”
A different voice, thick as used motor oil, chimed in. “You should be happy about how dis is goin’ down, Forester. After all, dis’ll be da last time you’re ever gonna see da likes of us, yeah?” The shrill grinding noise of metal against metal told me the end was near. One of them was fitting his gun with a silencer.
“Now why don’t you take a seat, get comfortable, and we’ll get dis over with, huh?”
Dad had stopped talking. He was going to meet his maker with his head held high. He must’ve made it downstairs because I heard the springs groan in his favorite threadbare recliner as he plopped down, resigned to his fate.
“Any last words, Forester?”
“Yeah. Just promise me one thing.” The bluster was gone. My father—the man who’d taught me to ride a bike, to play poker, and to never start fights (only to finish them)—had been stripped bare. His halting, plaintive appeal crushed my soul as I remained ensconced among prom dresses, old textbooks, and heavily used sports equipment.
“Just promise me that this ends here and now. You kill me. My debt’s cancelled. End of story. My daughter’s got her own life now back in Wisconsin.” Damn, the man lied like a pro. “And I don’t want her paying for her father’s sins.”
“Funny you should mention your daughter, Forester. Cause Malone says we’s supposed to go shake her down after we drop you, and we know she ain’t gots no connections to Wisconsin anymore. Seven hundred fifty grand is a lotta dough and our boss’s got a long memory for dat kinda debt. And judging by the number of cars parked in the driveway, you gots company, dontcha?”
Fuck. Seven hundred fifty grand? This was never going to end. My teeth shredded through my sleeve as I ground them together, scared out of my mind and running out of options.
Escape out the window? I was fifteen feet off the ground and not exactly light on my feet. Even if I made it out without breaking my leg, there was no way I could outrun these guys.
Call the cops? That would’ve been great if I hadn’t left my cell phone in the car. Seconds later, my mind went blank at the sound of Dad’s scream.
“You leave her the fuck alone!” Those were my father’s last words. With two muted pings, Malone’s hit men made me the last surviving member of the Forester clan. And judging by the heavy footfalls pounding up the staircase, I wasn’t going to enjoy that status for much longer.
My fight instincts kicked into full gear and my tears dried up as my mind processed what was about to happen. Although I hadn’t looked in my old closet since I’d moved out over a decade ago, I ran a quick mental inventory to see if there was anything I could use to defend myself. In a moment of clarity, I reached my arm into the dark corner and fumbled around for my last line of defense.
“Come on out now, sweetheart. We’s only wants to talk to you.” The sing-song quality of Goon One’s voice set my teeth on edge, but as I heard Goon Two mutter something similar from down the hall in the master suite, I knew the dipshit brigade had split up. And this meant I still had a shot at getting out of this alive.
Wrapping my fist around the leather grip, I held my breath and waited. Waited for Goon One to close in and find me. To his credit, it didn’t take him very long. I saw the shiny leather of his expensive shoes through the slats as he came to a stand in front of the closet. Within five seconds, I’d know if I was avenging my dad’s murder or rubbing shoulders with him on the way through the pearly gates. ‘Scared shitless’ didn’t begin to describe how I felt.
He whipped the door open and his fist surged like a cobra, twisting in my long auburn locks and dragging me out into the open. “Well, looky what I found.” For the love of all that was holy. This guy must’ve learned all his choicest lines from Lackey Mobster 101 at the local community college. But it was this foolish confidence that was his undoing. As a yellowed grin overtook his face, but before he could call to his sidekick, I choked up on the aluminum bat I’d grabbed and slammed about eighteen inches of it into his skull. Goon One dropped to the carpet like the sack of shit he was.
Hiding myself to the side of the doorjamb, I waited for Goon Two to make his appearance. He was there within seconds. “Hey, Joey. You dere?” The moment his greasy comb-over came into view, I swung for the fences and knocked him out cold with one shot. The dipshit brigade wasn’t dead, but they were going to be in a world of hurt when they came to.
Those were two of the best swings of my life, and I owed them to the man who’d never missed one of my softball games. The man who now sat lifeless in his worn-out recliner. The man who’d never see me walk down the aisle or meet his grandchildren.
But as I ran out the front door, a second surge of adrenaline pushed me into the red and I began to consider my options for moving forward. There’d be plenty of time to mourn Dad and my lost future once I got to wherever I was going, but crying wasn’t going to save my ass right now. I jumped in the car, slammed the keys in the ignition, and hauled ass toward my apartment and the bag of cash waiting for me there.
I had fifteen minutes to come up with a plan that would shape the rest of my life—that would ensure I had a rest of my life—and as I ticked through my list of criteria and limitations, my choices began to filter down to one.
A canvas bag with fifteen grand in it.
A place where nobody knows me, but where folks won’t ask too many questions.
A place where outsiders might stand out in case Malone sends more of his gorillas after me.
And there it was. The destination called out to me and wrapped me in a cocoon of warmth and hope.
As a child, I’d spent a couple of summers there with my grandparents and had always adored the little city tucked between the mountains and the stormy sea. And best of all, there was no way to drive in or out of Juneau. You had to come in by boat or plane, which meant it was a bitch to get to and—outside of cruise ship season—any outsiders with plans to kill me, or worse, would stick out like sore thumbs and give me time to make an escape. Although Gram and Gramps had long since passed on, Juneau had left an indelible mark on me. And even if I’d hated the city, I was running short on options and long on desperation.
Running into my apartment, I grabbed the cash hidden under my bed, threw some of my heaviest clothes into another duffel bag, called the casino to quit my job, and made my way to McCarran to board my last flight out of Vegas.
In less than twenty-four hours, I was going to be the newest resident of Alaska’s capital city.
It was around two in the afternoon that unseasonably cool July afternoon when Vernon Jenkins and I received the call that there were a couple of out-of-season moose hunters in the woods outside of town. The tip came in from one of the locals, an older Inuit named Amaruq. He had spotted the greenhorns from California as soon as they’d arrived in Juneau with their fancy gear and cluelessness about the wilderness, carrying rifles into the forest and dragging a sled designed for hauling a moose.
Well, that wasn’t happening, not on my watch. Seemed like damn near everyone from the lower forty-eight states of the U.S. were all the same when they came up here to Alaska—too big for their britches, disrespectful of local law and tradition, and in need of a swift kick in the ass. I could do without ‘em.
As I was scouting them out on my four-wheeler, Vernon’s voice cracked over the radio. “Nothing on the west side, Toby. How’s the eastside looking?”
“I’m not seein’ a damn thing,” I grumbled softly. I wanted to catch these trespassers more than anything. “I’m going to turn north and head up toward the trail.”
“Copy that; see you up there.”
I throttled the vehicle between my legs and stood up. The pathway I was on was rough and full of bumps and holes. Standing up made it much easier to navigate and I could bend my knees with the subtle changes in the landscape, never losing my balance. Given the number of years I’d been a game warden, I was used to trekking through the deep woods and knowing the lay of the land.
As I reached the top of the trail, I heard the noise I’d been dreading. The loud cannon crack of a shotgun broke the peace of the afternoon. Birds flew out of trees into the gray Alaskan sky while branches and underbrush rustled as animals fled the scene.
I gunned the four-wheeler in the direction of the blast. When I arrived in the clearing, two assholes who had no business being there surrounded the body of a dead moose, a juvenile by the looks of it. I pulled up to a stop and placed my hand on the grip of the pistol I was carrying in my holster.
The two men noticed me and smiled. “Morning, warden,” the taller one called out. “Good day for a hunt, isn’t it?”
“Considering hunting season isn’t for another four weeks, I’d say no, it’s not.” I slowly walked toward them. “I’m afraid you killed that moose illegally. I need you both to put down your weapons.”
The shorter man immediately complied. “Jamie, you told me the season had started!”
“Shut up, Dave,” the taller one snapped. “Are you sure, warden? The local guide told us the season was under way.”
I didn’t know if this Jamie thought he could bullshit his way out of this, but it wasn’t working. The load of crap he was spewing was only making his case worse.
“Son, I’m afraid no local guide worth his salt would give you bad information like that.” I withdrew my weapon and pointed it at him. “I’m going to ask you one more time, put the shotgun on the ground.”
“Come on, Jamie,” Dave pleaded with him.
“Sorry, Dave. I’m not giving up my kill.”
The shotgun must’ve been loaded. He whipped it into position and fired at the same time I did. My shot was true, piercing him through the chest, but that’s the last thing I remembered as I began to burn with the fires of hell as the shotgun’s scattered discharge entered my body…
I woke with a start. I was in my own bed; it’d just been a dream. Reflexively, I reached under my shirt and ran my hand over the nasty scars that covered my abdomen. The local surgeon had done the best he could on short notice, but there hadn’t been a way to get the top plastic surgeon from Anchorage to Juneau in the amount of time needed. All they could do was dig out as much shot as they could find and hope they’d gotten it all. The mottled scars were a permanent reminder of how messed up the world was and how so many of the selfish assholes from the lower forty-eight didn’t respect Alaskan law or its nature.
My alarm clock lit up the room. It was only five-fifteen, but as I wasn’t getting any more sleep, I figured it was time to get the day started. Crab season was right around the corner and it would soon be time to get out on the waters to make my quota.
I was no longer a game warden. After going through the surgery and the long rehab, I had decided it was time to give back the gun and badge and find something a bit easier on the lifespan. So naturally, I took up one of the most dangerous kinds of fishing, crabbing. The Gulf of Alaska was a tortured and wild woman, one that yearned to be tamed but never would be. I loved trying though. And, on the good days, there were moments when I could even consider myself her master. Those were the moments worth living for.
After a breakfast of eggs, ham, and bacon, all cooked over my fireplace, I pulled on my work boots, wool shirt, and coat. On the way out the door, I grabbed my thermos of coffee and my faded brown skullcap. The brisk weather was refreshing, and although I’d grown up a bit farther north, I couldn’t foresee myself living anywhere else. Seeing my breath as I exhaled every few seconds was a sure sign I was in the right place. The crunch of the semi-frosted grass blades underfoot was music to my ears. Although October had just arrived, we’d already had our first snow flurries. Even though it was just a few flakes, we paid mind to the changing weather patterns. Up here, Mother Nature loved reminding us that she was the one in charge.
The walk to the dock only took about ten minutes. My boat bobbed gently in the low wake threading its way through the marina. Christened The Midnight Sun, she was moored at the very end of the pier. I’d named her after my deceased wife’s favorite time of the year, when the Alaskan summers gave us sunlight almost twenty-four hours straight. Naming this boat that was the last bit of her legacy left to me.
Her hull was covered in barnacles. I hated seeing her have those tenacious little assholes plastered against her belly like that. I pulled out my old knife, one given to me by a local man a few years back. He’d since passed on, but I’d always enjoyed listening to his tales from his time in the military and, of course, his boasting about his kin from the lower forty-eight.
He’d given me the knife precisely for this job. “Tobias,” he’d said—he was the only one who’d ever used my full name—“If you’re not gonna be a warden and really wanna run this old bucket, you at least need the right tools.”
I missed the old guy. Stan. He was crusty and gruff, just like me, and given all we’d been through, had become almost like a second father. Using that old knife, I began digging the barnacles off one by one. It was tedious work, but one that kept my muscles pumped and tight.
As the morning went on, more people began to show up on the docks. A lot of the locals just gave me a quick head nod. Again, my personality wasn’t the warmest on the exterior. Plus, a bunch of them still felt sorry for me in the aftermath of the shooting. But I didn’t need anyone’s damn pity. I didn’t want to talk about what happened, share my feelings, or God forbid, ‘get closure.’ Nope, no one’s damn business but my own.
“I thought I’d see you down here,” a voice rang out. Turning around, I could see it was my partner, Kallik Eagleclaw. “Getting our marvel ready for her debut this season?”
I snuffed into the air and kept working. “Bout time your raggedy ass got down here,” I replied.
All he did was laugh. “You’re something else, Toby.” He leaned over beside me and pulled out his own knife. “Have you fired up the engine yet?”
“No need to.”
He raised an eyebrow toward me. “You’re that confident in this thing?”
I stopped digging and walked on to the main deck and up to the captain’s chair. Without even saying a word, I started the engine and it began to purr like a kitten. Looking out the circular window to the dock, I asked, “Happy?”
Kallik just laughed and shook his head in surrender. “Come on, Toby, I’ll get you some lunch.”
Food was the last thing I wanted, but when someone else was offering to pay, I wasn’t a dumb man. I joined Kallik on the pier and the two of us walked back into town. We stopped at one of the local bars—Hook’s—one the cruise ship tourists would never think to grab a bite in. Thankfully cruise season would be over within the next few days and we wouldn’t have to contend with the nearly daily scourge of thousands of tourists crowding us out of our favorite bars and restaurants. I know, I know, tourism was part of what kept our isolated city afloat. But it didn’t mean I had to like it.
I hadn’t been paying attention to anything Kallik had been saying, but he never expected a response anyway, so I was in the clear. The only thing that snapped me back to attention was when Mary dropped off our plates and the scent of fried perfection made my stomach rumble. To be honest, there was nothing like a good cod sandwich and fresh-cut fries to keep the energy going. I even splurged and had a beer. Unfortunately, once Mary dropped off my amber, that’s when the trouble started.
“Kevin, I don’t want no problems…”
It seemed like every two or three days, these two were going at it, and the whole town was there to bear witness to the scenes. Kevin was another crabber and Mary was his baby’s mother. Given her job at the restaurant, Kevin had convinced himself she was cheating on him with every single guy who walked through the door. Nothing could be further from the truth, and everyone knew it. Everyone except Kevin. I kept my head down in my food, ignoring their drama. But that all ended once he raised his hand to her.
With a closed fist waving in her face, he shouted, “M-mary, I know you’re sucking off Tom’s, Dick’s, and Larry’s! L-looks like I gotta give you another reminder about who your man is!” The mild stuttering slur. The glassy eyes. The slight weaving gait. Kevin was already good and drunk.
Hitting a woman or even threatening to do it was a huge ‘ain’t gonna happen’ in my book. It was one thing to give a rebellious soulmate a good old-fashioned spanking in the bedroom when she deserved it. But those kinds of swats were issued with love and control. Kevin’s display was about intimidation and abuse. That’s where the line was crossed and I pushed my beer to the side.
“Kevin, it’s time to knock it off.” I rose to my feet and stilled myself with a deep breath.
“Sit y-your ass down, Toby,” he countered. “You’re just plain pathetic and broken, bitch.”
More quickly than I’d expected, he rounded on Mary and she flinched, as if she expected to get hit. I managed to change his mind with one massive punch to the jaw that laid him out cold. As soon as my knuckles cracked into his weak chin, his consciousness was separated from his body. No one moved as his head bounced off the old wooden floor twice before he came to a halt. Grabbing half of my sandwich—no sense in going hungry—and tossing a few bills on the table, I stepped over him, with Kallik close on my tail. No sooner did I open the tavern door to leave than the whole place erupted in clapping and cheering.